By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Hannah Sayle
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Aside from a sneaking suspicion that Nicollet Mall is turning into a little bit of Epcot Center in the snow, I have to say I like Brasserie Zinc very much. Zut alors! Sacre bleu! Maman, papa, cherchez la femme! Alouette, gentille alouette....
Where was I? Oh yeah. Epcot Center. The part of Disney World featuring "World Showcase"--Chinaworld smack up against Moroccoworld, with appropriate seasoning packets available. Look at Nicollet Mall with too jaded an eye right now and you can see how one would careen down the street from Englandworld (Brit's), to Irelandworld (The Local), to Franceworld (Brasserie Zinc). Where's the city-of-the-future pavilion? Pottery Barn. Attendez, though, cast too jaded an eye on the world and you'll miss your fair share of mussels and Pernod, and that would be, as they said in Paris when I was a young girl, sadder than a hound dog with a head cold in a bacon factory.
Or maybe that wasn't Paris--maybe that was Epcot Center. I don't know. What I do know is that Brasserie Zinc is the casual French restaurant that opened in late September, founded by a group of investors that includes general manager and wine enthusiast Edmund Burke, as well as Kieran Folliard, the creator of Kieran's and the highly successful Local. Zinc does all the things right that the Local does right: A substantial, attractive, hand-carved bar forms the heart of the place and doles out irresistible beverages. The convivial atmosphere is completed by live (or at least well-chosen recorded) music. Rich, addictive dishes from the homeland make up the best part of the menu. Zinc does it all, with a wine list to be reckoned with and mussels you'd fillet a flipping fugu for.
Which are presented side by side with a number of dishes you'd eat your beret to avoid. Zinc's litany of shame includes chewy steak tartare ($10.95), an awful offering mysteriously drained of beef flavor; unbeefy and acrid onion soup ($4.95); bland, watery bouillabaisse ($16.95) made with overcooked fish; and even a clumsy tarte Tatin ($4) presented with none of the caramelized top that makes the upside-down apple tart distinct. The odd version here is more like poached, spiced apples in crust. Yuck, too, to the coulibiac ($15.95), a Friday-night special of salmon and rice cooked with herbs in brioche dough until exhausted and gummy. And off with the heads of "Les Frères" ($16.95), a bizarrely tasteless dish of sliced hanger steak and crisped short ribs presented with mashed potatoes and bitter, unpleasant onion ragout.
So why am I so fond of a place that misses its target so often? Mostly, it's the beverages, the bread, and the atmosphere--and the fact that the raw bar ain't bad. The oysters glisten freshly on their raised, glassed-in beds by the host's stand. (Sneeze-guarded and up and off the sidewalk, no less--a definite improvement over the true Parisian style. Mon dieu! Americans and our germs! Soon we will want our oysters' bellies hand-washed with watermelon-scented antibacterial soap!) Order a plateau for $25 or $49, and you get a bowl of ice topped with oysters, poached-in-the-shell shrimp, littleneck clams, and langoustines, which are a critter that looks like a tiny half-lobster, half-shrimp but tastes like a crab. When I ordered it, a small plateau yielded 20 former sea-dwellers--a good deal. (But skip the silly "oyster cocktail à la Zinc" ($9.95), a squishy, charmless composition of out-of-the-shell oysters tossed atop a martini glass of champagne granitée.)
The hot mollusks are even better than the cold--particularly the rave-worthy mussels swimming in butter, herbs, and wine. That mussel broth is so good, so rich, so bright and clear, it's tempting to consider raising the bowl to your lips to gulp it down. Unfortunately, if you did that then you couldn't sop it up with bread and frites--one of the most acute pleasures now available on Nicollet Mall. The frites ($3.95) on their own are nothing special, though they arrive very attractively in the traditional paper-lined metal cup. Once you start dunking them in the mussel-broth, though, they become fantastic. Then you can start dunking the bread in the broth, and that becomes fantastic.
Indeed, one of the smartest things Zinc has done is get their bread from the dough mavens of Turtle Bread. The bakery's baguette is particularly noteworthy now, as it was recently reengineered with help from the team that competes for the U.S. in the world championships of European baking, "La Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie." This has meant that the baguettes are creamier, crisper, and lighter than they were. If Zinc continues to slice these fresh to order, they'll always have a place in my heart.
What else can you do with the bread? Why, you might spread it with the brandade ($4.95), a great, salty, garlicky version of the classic purée of salt cod, potatoes, olive oil, and garlic. You might use your bread to scoop up clumps of fondue ($5.95), here a dip made of hot goat cheese, good black olives, and tomatoes, combined and grilled till bubbly. At lunch--and this is something downtown has been waiting for for years--the baguette is available filled as a real French street-sandwich like salami and cheese ($5.95), or Attic ham with tomato and Brie ($7.95). The sandwiches come with potatoes on the side. If you could get them for $2 less wrapped in paper at the door, without potato, I'd lead the way for an all-city beret toss. Running low on ideas for bread? Here's an off-the-menu tip: A little dish of the house white-truffle béarnaise costs only $1.75--and it's as good as it sounds.
Once you've filled up on bread, the easiest thing to do is to have salads and then steam right on to dessert. Still, if you're of a mind to have an entrée, try the sautéed skate ($14.95), a tender wing of fish gently fried and dressed with butter and capers and accompanied by lightly steamed spinach tossed with hazelnuts and mashed skin-on red potatoes. Or there's the steak au poivre, a value at $16.95 since it's a big ol' American-size New York strip swamped with a rich sauce of whole, pickled peppercorns, shallots, Armagnac, and, I suspect, lots and lots of butter. But hey, with all the heart-healthy wine you'll be drinking, it all evens out in the end, right? (Anyone writing in to answer this will win a bottomless carafe of my scorn.)
The real meat of Zinc is the liquids. The bar boasts scads of French and Belgian beers, including La Trappe on tap ($4.50), served in its own signature broad-bellied short goblet to accentuate its sharp, biscuity, and flowery aroma. All the classic French apéritifs, like Pernod ($5), served classily in a two-glass setup, a squat glass of liqueur accompanied by a flute with ice. Pour the Pernod onto the ice and the liquid turns white and looks very dangerous indeed. There is also a bewitching assortment of house cocktails, including a seductive lemony Champagne and brandy cocktail called the Azur ($6). The "House Cocktail," a 500-milliliter bottle of spiced house brandy and rosé ($15), arrives deeply chilled and intensely pink. It starts off with a spicy burn but mellows. Seeing a tray of drinks borne away from the bar here is nearly thrilling, the glassware is so various, the drinks so diverse it looks like you're in the opening shot of some grand screwball comedy with Paulette Lombard. To make the comedy complete, stick some complimentary hard-boiled eggs in your pocket from one of the pretty wire egg-holders on the bar.
To feel less screwball, just turn your eye to the wine list, which is, in a word, smart. Stocked with almost 250 wines, this list has been chosen for both restaurant-goers looking for a beverage and sharp-eyed oenophiles looking for something good and novel. Most bottles are priced at an appropriate with-dinner level, in the $20 to $40 range. You can find a cheap, good, sturdy red to go with your garlicky brandade, like the Heredad Ugarte Crianza Rioja ($22), and you can also smack your lips over all the hard-to-find values from southern France, particularly in the grand cru Beaujolais and the southern Rhone. Sadly, there's one glaring exception to the general fitness of the list: Sparkling wines here are both expensive and unimaginative. It's enough to make a bubbly-lover throw eggs.
In fact, it was a Zinc bartender who brought up the possibility of throwing eggs. "One time they were throwing a guy out from Brit's," he told me, gesturing to one of the towers of brown and white hard-boiled eggs. "And he started whipping our eggs at them." Which is an odd way of pointing out what a cozy walking community we've finally achieved downtown. That young egg-thrower might have thought he'd need a protein snack to get to the next bar, but clearly he was remembering the Nicollet Mall of yore. So, who's going to approach the record store Let It Be about getting with the program, and sprucing up their façade with some animatronic dancing ravers?